In a recent article Amnesty International accused the Venezuelan government of a “witch hunt” when opposition mayor, Daniel Ceballos was arrested. However, Amnesty has yet to use such strong language against the five weeks of human rights violations people in Venezuela have suffered at the hands of violent opposition sectors. The “witch hunt” term demonises the people’s right to bring such criminals to justice.
Amnesty argues in its article, Venezuela: Arrest of local mayor signals potential “witch hunt”, dated 20 March 2014, that Ceballos, mayor of San Cristobal, capital of Tachira state, was arrested for his “alleged involvement in anti-government protests…authorities in Venezuela seem to be setting the scene for a witch hunt against opposition leaders”.
It is important to counter the horrendous distortions contained in the article, because despite the fact that Amnesty is not expert on Venezuela, the private media and even some leftwing media will quote its positions as fact. Further, articles like this embolden the criminals and coup participants who make up a part of the opposition leadership, while making it harder for those of us here who have suffered from the violence to be able to demand arrests, and authorities to carry them out.
As I write (on Saturday afternoon), I can hear constant gunshots coming from down the road. Violent groups who have called for President Maduro to resign, are firing from the street and apartment buildings at people, buses, and cars on the main city intersection on Avenue Las Americas. They have set a bus on fire, and two people have been shot, including a youth from the barrio where I teach. The other is a Cantv worker –reports coming in now that he has died. Four police have been injured. The driver of that bus has now lost his living. Photo, photo, photo, and video.
That intersection has been like this, to different extents for weeks. Last week on my way to work I took photos of a burnt truck and rubbish there. Because of the violent opposition blockades, for weeks people haven’t been able to exercise their basic human rights and get to work, school, university, shops, and hospitals. There are various such blockades around the country, mainly concentrated in cities with an opposition mayor, including Ceballos’ city of San Cristobal. The blockaders verbally abuse, physically attack, and sometimes charge bribes to people who want to get through. Others have not been able to get through and have been stuck inside their house, or outside of it, for weeks. The blockaders have hung effigies of Chavistas in red shirts, and painted slogans in the road that involve anti-Cuban racism. Journalists, including myself, as well as various community, alternative, and private media journalists, have been physically attacked and threatened when trying to cover what Amnesty in its article refers to as “protests”. If they were protests, the protestors would welcome the publicity. 31 people have been killed, the majority by blockaders, and the violent opposition sectors have also destroyed buses, stations, burnt houses and shops, attacked the buildings of public institutions and media outlets, and destroyed countless fences, traffic lights, signage, and billboards.
By leaving out all political, historical and economical context, and ignoring the opposition’s proven history of backing the rich elites, Amnesty probably believes it is being “neutral”. In fact, the organisation’s limited and Eurocentric understanding of democracy and rights sees it in this article condemning a so called attack on an individual, whilst being blind to the (failing) attempt currently underway to overthrow a democratically elected government.
Ceballos meanwhile, has publically –through his Twitter account, the media, and his own actions – supported that attempt. While his level of involvement- financial or not- in the violence is up to the courts to pronounce, that much is clear. Despite video evidence proving the contrary, he blamed the National Guard for the death of an opposition blockader, then paraded the victim’s coffin through the town to support his political cause. The Supreme Court later ordered Mayor Ceballos to remove blockades in the city so that people could exercise their right to free transit, and he ignored that order. The Tachira governor has also accused Ceballos of allegedly having foreign bank accounts containing money he has allegedly made out of his support for drug smuggling and petrol contraband, as well as permitting the presence of Colombian paramilitaries, who have allegedly been supporting the far right’s campaign to remove Maduro.
Minister for internal affairs, Miguel Rodriguez said, “A mayor is obliged to comply with the constitution and the law, and to not foment violence, anarchy, and civil rebellion”. Given that there is at least very solid evidence for his support for the violent barricades, is it not reasonable to take Ceballos to court? If a mayor in Australia or the US or Europe were to actively encourage destruction of public property, chaos, closing roads so that people can’t get urgent medical care, and the overthrow of that nation’s government, would it be a “witch hunt” if that mayor was taken to trial? Or is it only progressive governments who aren’t allowed to arrest open criminals and put them on trial?
In the article, Amnesty’s America’s spokesperson Guadalupe Marengo concludes, “It is undeniable that authorities in Venezuela have a responsibility to maintain public order. However, unless they respect the human rights of all and exercise restraint, their actions will lead to even more violence.” What Marengo fails to acknowledge, is the ridiculous levels of restraint the Venezuelan government has exercised.
No other government in the world would be this restrained in the face of such intense and long lasting violence and violations, as well as the threat to overthrow it. There have been a few exceptions, and no other government in the world would publically reject such exceptions, then arrest the perpetrators, as the one here has. 14 members of security forces have been arrested for alleged abuses and excessive use of force, while not one police responsible for racial killings in Australia for example, has ever been arrested – rather they tend to be promoted. Further, despite putting up with constant verbal harassment, racism, injuries, and six deaths so far from opposition “protestors”, the National Guard has mostly remained calm, here for example, giving blockaders a workshop in human rights, then letting them go.
The Venezuelan people have also been incredibly patient and peaceful. In little Merida alone, thousands of government supporters have marched for peace four times in one month, despite not being able to get into the city because the violent opposition threatened the bus union if they didn’t go on strike. There has been up to a hundred more marches around the country calling for peace, and in Merida, government supporters have organised daily cultural events in the main plaza. Further, the national government and state governments have repeatedly called for, and held, peace talks, which the opposition, including Ceballos, has refused to attend.
Ceballos is being charged with civil rebellion, Article 143 of the Penal Code, and criminal association, Article 258 of the Penal Code. According to Ultimas Noticias, Ceballos was arrested because of denouncements made by citizens in his municipality who demanded “actions be taken because of the closing of roads and lack of rubbish collection”. They also argued that he had been leading the attacks on public and private property, on people, and on free transit, and they lodged a petition in the Third Court of San Cristobal. The First Control Court in the city then put out the arrest warrant, which was carried out by the Sebin. Though national government authorities have commented on the arrest- as is their political right, do the citizens of Ceballos’ municipality not have the right to lodge complaints? Does Amnesty have the right to argue that if myself and others in Merida, facing a similar situation with the opposition mayor here, were to lodge a petition to have him arrested, it would be a witch hunt? We don’t have the right to defend ourselves, our human rights – our right to education, to work, to get health care, to walk freely in the streets, to public transport, to safety, which is being infringed by these violent barricades?
Impunity feeds crime, and nobody, not even mayors, politicians, or police should have it.